content warning: kidnapping, violence, death
The sea in the darkness calls
in the voices of her sisters, lamenting.
Their grief an ocean, and she cries bitter saltwater tears.
The men catch her in a net, first, and drag her out with gnarled, angry fists. One hand is tangled in her hair and more press into the skin of her body, and they carry her easily despite her best efforts.
They drop her when they leave the reach of the water -- drag her onto the beach, through the sand. She gasps for air, nails scrabbling at the iron they put on her wrists, the cloth they gag her with.
They only laugh.
The tide rises; the tide falls.
She lays in the sun, baking; in the moon, she shivers.
Her form had shifted when she’d left the water, left her with two weak legs instead of the power of her tail. At first she’d tried to crawl, tried to stand, but she’d only fallen back into the burning sand.
She can hear the waves, at least. Rising, falling.
She matches her breaths to the rhythm of the waves.
After the first day, they lift her from the sand. Her skin burns from the sun, from their touch, and then they drop her into water.
The comfort is cold, and short-lived.
It’s not her home; it’s a coffin made of glass.
She presses her hands to the glass, can feel the sea on the other side.
She watches the waves roll in, tries to figure time from the way they move. She’s done this more times than she remembers, but never from above the water.
She loses track of the hours she’s spent here. She dreams of the sea, her home — the tide, waves rising and falling, sparking. The light from the moon, shining in the dark.
They have stolen other things, not just her.
They have taken coral and pearls, shells and other things.
The sea is quiet, but when she sees what they have taken, her blood boils hot in her veins.
But she is patient.
She can wait.
Here is something they have forgotten: the sea is older and hungrier than they could ever dream. The sea was alive long before they were ever a thought; the sea will outlast the ones who are not yet a thought even now.
When the sea smiles, it is with the sharp-tooth grin of a predator.
The tide rises, the tide falls.
Birds wheel overhead.
The sea will always protect her children.
They gagged her as soon as she was out of the water; they have kept her silent.
The sea has screamed and raged with her voice, instead.
She can hear the echoes of her sisters in the waves.
And then it falls silent, and she knows: it’s time.
In the night, while they sleep heavy and deep, steeped in their snuffling rough-snore dreams, she bloodies her fists, her feet, on the glass until a spider-web crack forms.
When she smiles, her teeth are bared, and it’s a sharp and hungry thing.
She climbs out of the coffin they made for her, takes unsteady steps on her pins-and-needle feet.
Their loot sits, unguarded, by a flickering fire. She wrinkles her nose at the stink of alcohol that lies heavy on the men, but presses on.
Like ghosts in the sand, her feet leave bloody prints behind her, trailing.
She picks through their hoard with careful fingers; when she finds what she’s looking for, she holds it closer to her chest.
In the moonlight she tips her head back, shakes her hair out, and sends a silent wave of gratitude to the ocean.
They do not wake, at first, but when they do it is all at once. She is brutal with them as they have been with her. She fights them with nails and teeth and her stolen coral knife.
The dawn comes, and when the sky lightens, the sand of the beach is red with their blood.
Her hands, too.
She sits at the edge of the sea, feet in the water. She dips her hands beneath the waves, lets the tide steal the color from her fingertips until the sea itself is a gaping, bleeding wound.
The iron chains lie, broken and useless, next to her, though dark shadows of them linger on her wrists, burned into her skin.
She has broken the chains they put her in.
She has earned her freedom, paid for it with the blood of the ones who put her in iron.
She watches the waves, how they rise and fall, like something wild and breathing.
These men did not believe the sea is a living thing.
They were wrong.
At dawn, she lays the things they’ve stolen at the edge of the water, trusting that the tide will rise, the tide will fall — and so what they have stolen will be returned, taken back by safer hands.
In the dawning light, she hears her sisters’ call thrumming in her veins.
She looks at her hands, stained with blood and cleaned by the tide, and smiles, small and exhausted.
When she slips back under the water, she doesn’t look back.
This piece was first published in The Rising Phoenix Review.
Jaclyn Hart still believes in magic and possibilities. If she's not writing, she's thinking about the power of stories. She's written many pieces but this is her first published piece. Find her @jfhartwrites on Twitter.